Quilts Stitch Together Creativity with Fluid Social Networks
By © Russ Barnes
"From the early days of colonial America, quilt-making was a means to keep the family warm,” explains Shelly Burge, an award-winning quilter, from her home in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Today -- after centuries of American geographic and cultural migration along numerous routes from, for example, Pennsylvania Amish farms to homestead cabins on the American frontier -- “works of quilting, since then,” Shelly continues, “have often become dynamic pieces of artwork fit for the walls of the modern home or museum wall.”
WEALTH FROM BITS & SCRAPS
In speaking with Shelly and other quilters, I grew astonished by the requisite detailed workmanship and the ingenuity applied: bands of old clothing, stray rags, campaign ribbons, abandoned beads, a rainbow of dyes, and pieces of bed sheets. And of course the pattern, the schematic representation once-upon-a-time cut out of the newspaper -- today, downloaded from the internet -- provides the model from which to improvise the quilt out of sundry bits and scraps.
Quilting is exemplary in its capacity to tease wealth out of scarcity.
The skill and imagination of the quilter in selecting the most appropriate one-piece backing, the cotton or wool “batting” in the middle, and the myriad top stitches: these selections and combinations appear as if accomplished through a kind of wizardry.
There is something in the quilter's craftsmanship that fulfills the king’s charge to the miller’s daughter in the fairy-tale, Rumpelstiltskin, to spin gold out of straw. Somehow even an average quilter can accomplish this fairy-tale miracle.
I asked Shelly what it was that first propelled her interest in quilting. "My grandmother taught me to sew on a tiny hand-cranked toy sewing machine in the 1950’s," she responded." So began Shelly’s interest, curiosity, and and involvement in fabrics and thread. When she married her husband, Clint, in 1972, she bought a 1972 Touch and Sew Singer sewing machine. With that machine, she sewed clothes and other household goods for herself, her husband, her daughter Vicki, and son Ryan.
By 1973, she had moved on to quilting -- and never looked back.
“I mostly wore out that sewing machine making quilts. It took about eight years.” she said. “I started entering my quilts in the Nebraska State Fair in 1977. I began in 1983 to teach quilting at guilds and fabric shops. Then I tried coming up with my own patterns -- different from any printed one. I took parts of previous ones and combined them with what I had learned,” Shelly revealed.
“I am fascinated with fabric, the characteristics of each type of fabric, and how my knowledge of a pattern, stitch, or technique might lend itself to each of them.”
What has intrigued Shelly over the years is how the quilting craft -- now a $3.5 billion industry -- has morphed into its present rich diversity. From at first serving as needed house-hold items, quilts then became perfect for gift-giving, bestowed as heirlooms for descendants and loved ones, artifacts for cultural enrichment, and most recently, valuable as funding donations -- contributions -- to worthy causes. (These several topics will be explored in future posts of “Travel with a Twist.” Your topic ideas solicited.)
QUILT VARIATIONS “AS NUMEROUS AS THE STARS IN THE SKY”
Listening to Shelly Burge talk with passion about the craft of quilting made a distinct impression on me. I have experienced the beauty of quilts in their seeming infinite variety. It is clear that quilting is no mere art. Quilting is also a powerful means of social and cultural transmission.
In fact, it is a close cousin to digital social networking. The old, but not extinct, “sewing circles” are becoming extensive social networks, operating much as do digital ones. They make bottom-up, grassroots “link-ups” for the purpose of transmitting perceptions, techniques, patterns, as well as social, personal, and aesthetic exchanges.
The result is a transmission of quilting ideas and styles across geography and culture -- all working only by the creativity of a single artist at her sewing machine. When these sucessively influenced quilts are seen side by side, it becomes clear that quilting moves across networks of people something like genetic reproduction: similar features, but fierce and fulfilling in their individuality.
In Lincoln, Shelly belongs to an informal sewing circle of five women who have met once a month for more than twenty-two years. But information about quilting is not all that is traded in this small group, Shelly points out. “We talk about everything: our families, the schools, volleyball and football, the community. Everything gets discussed.”
“Even politics?” I ask. “You debate which political candidates to elect?”
“Yes,” she replies. “We influence one other.”
SHELLY BURGE, in addition to being an award-winning quilter, is also available as a lecturer on quilting, is a workshop instructor, and a sewing machine collector. For more information on her up-to-date quilting activities are at: http://www.shellyburge.com. Her pieces have won over 125 blue ribbons in the Nebraska State Fair including four Pride of Nebraska awards and five Best Original Design awards. Her quilts have received prestigious recognition in numerous quilt competitions across America, Europe and Japan. She is perhaps best known for her miniature quilts that have won first place in national quilt contests in California, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Florida, Texas and the 1989 Lynn Harris Award for best miniature quilt in the National Quilting Association Show. She is one of the founders of the Nebraska State Quilt Guild and in 2009 she was named to the Nebraska Quilters Hall of Fame.
QUILTING MUSEUM. The International Quilt Study Center & Museum is located in Lincoln, Nebraska and is part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. One-of-a-kind, the Center houses the largest publicly-held quilt collection in the world. The 3000+ quilts date from the early 1700s to the present and represent over 25 countries. The museum is open to the public. http://www.quiltstudy.org. 402-472-6549.
LINCOLN, Nebraska -- The Prairie Capital City. The city’s attractions, accommodations, events information are published by the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau at http://www.lincoln.org. (800) 423-8212.
THE AMERICAN QUILTER'S SOCIETY. For more information on quilting at http://www.americanquilter.com
(c) Russ Barnes, "Travel with a Twist" will appreciate interactive comments and suggestions. Send post to your interested friends. My thanks to Karen Alexander